Is Syria returning to the Arab fold? - opinion

If the gas project goes through, it could accelerate Syria’s return to the Arab fold, a trend emerging gradually over the past two years.

A PICTURE of Syria’s President Bashar Assad hangs outside the parliament building in Damascus in April. (photo credit: YAMAM AL SHAAR/REUTERS)
A PICTURE of Syria’s President Bashar Assad hangs outside the parliament building in Damascus in April.
(photo credit: YAMAM AL SHAAR/REUTERS)

According to a US-mediated agreement reached in early September, gas from Egypt will be pumped through Jordan and Syria to ease Lebanon’s dire energy plight. This unusual deal is aimed primarily at shrinking Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria.

Just as interesting is the fact that in sponsoring this solution, the United States is violating its own policy of economic sanctions imposed on Syria by the Obama administration in 2011 and intensified during the Trump administration by the 2019 Caesar Act. What is more, if the gas project goes through, it could accelerate Syria’s return to the Arab fold, a trend emerging gradually over the past two years.

In November 2011, most member states of the Arab League voted to suspend Syria’s membership and sever diplomatic relations with Damascus. The decision followed President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on the rebels seeking to overthrow his regime during the period known as the “Arab Spring.” What is more, some Arab countries even played an active role in the civil war, whether within the US-led military coalition, or by providing financial and logistical support for various rebel groups (with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan most active in this regard).

A decade on, after a half million Syrians losing their lives and several million Syrians turned into refugees, Arab leaders are realizing that the war has been decided in favor of the Assad regime and that their interest lies in recognizing this outcome and cooperating with the Syrian leader to confront regional challenges and threats.

Credit for this breakthrough goes to the United Arab Emirates, just as it does for the 2020 Abraham Accords. In April 2018, following a combined American, British and French missile attack on a Syrian army base in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against the rebels, the UAE came to Syria’s defense. Then-Emirati foreign minister Anwar Gargash declared that the civil war in Syria was being waged between Assad and “radical Islamist” forces, and called for Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab League. In doing so, the UAE adopted the Syrian narrative about the nature of the civil war, and along with Bahrain it reopened its embassy in Damascus.

Jordan, too, which claimed that it never severed relations with Syria, appointed a senior diplomat to Damascus and even opened the border crossing between the two countries for the passage of goods.

Subsequently, King Abdullah assumed the role of Syria’s guarantor in Washington, taking the opportunity of his July 2021 meeting with Biden to call for dialogue with Assad. In 2020, Oman returned its ambassador to Syria. Saudi Arabia also undertook several confidence building measures vis-à-vis the Syrians. In early 2020, Syrian trucks were granted permission to enter the kingdom.

A subsequent meeting between Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin-Farhan and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, issued a call for Syria’s “return to the Arab family.” In May 2021, a Saudi delegation led by the kingdom’s intelligence chief arrived in Damascus and met with Assad and the head of Syrian intelligence.

According to news reports, the two sides agreed on the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Damascus, to be followed by Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab League. Shortly after, a Syrian delegation led by the minister of tourism paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, and Syria’s defense minister paid a rare visit to Jordan on September 19.

In addition to Jordan and the Gulf states, Egypt and Iraq are also heading for rapprochement with Syria. At an August 2021 conference in Baghdad, attended by leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi declared “a new page in relations with Syria.”

These signals thus point to the fact that Syria’s path back into the Arab world and the Arab League is being repaved. It should be noted that Egypt, too, which was suspended from the league for signing its peace agreement with Israel, was reinstated in 1989 following gradual renewals of diplomatic relations.

WHAT ARE the reasons for these developments?

First of all, Arab politics are based primarily on realpolitik rather than ideology, meaning that most Arab rulers realize Assad is here to stay. Second, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan are members of the camp striving to weaken the Iranian-Shi’ite axis. They are hoping that renewed relations with Damascus will bolster their influence in Syria at the expense of Iran and Hezbollah.

Just last month, Nasrallah declared that Iranian oil tankers were heading to Beirut to resolve Lebanon’s crippling energy crisis. The US appears to have cottoned on to this thinking and acted to finalize the Egyptian gas deal with Jordan and Syria. Third, the renewed relations could also serve as leverage to curb Turkey’s influence, especially in Syria’s north.

Syria, for its part, is interested mainly in Gulf state involvement in providing humanitarian aid and help in rebuilding its infrastructure and economy, tasks that are apparently beyond the reach of Russia and Iran.

It should be noted that even though Syria has been perceived as a satellite (and in the past an ally) of Iran since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, historically Syria has been an integral part of the Arab world: Syria, the “cradle of Arabism,” was the birthplace of modern Arab nationalism 100 years ago; it was among the seven founders of the Arab League in 1945. It has always served as a center of Arab ideology, and was even the first to unite fully with another Arab state (the union of Egypt and Syria known as the United Arab Republic, 1958-1961). Syria is unlikely to abandon Iran or Hezbollah at this stage, but it certainly could adopt a more sophisticated policy allowing it to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Israel has a clear interest in weakening the Iranian-Shi’ite axis, and therefore any Syrian move toward Arab states that maintain open or clandestine ties with Israel is welcome. However, the fact that the Gulf states are also flirting with Iran, even as they strengthen their ties with Israel, requires that Israel monitor closely the changes taking place in the Arab system and adopt a proactive approach in its contacts with Arab states.

“Whoever would lead the Middle East must control her,” journalist and Hafez Assad biographer Patrick Seal wrote of Syria in the 1960s. In the search for control and leadership, Syria continues serving as a focal point of competition and rivalry among the powers and actors in the region due to its geo-strategic importance. This centrality is the engine driving Syria back into the arms of the Arab world.

Prof. Elie Podeh teaches at the Islamic and Middle East Studies Department of Hebrew University and is a board member of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Yogev Elbaz is a PhD candidate in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and recipient of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Scholarship at Hebrew University.